The assumption of natural rights expressed in the Declaration of Independence can be summed up by the following proposition: “first comes rights, then comes government.” According to this view: (1) the rights of individuals do not originate with any government, but preexist its formation; (2) The protection of these rights is the first duty of government; and (3) Even after government is formed, these rights provide a standard by which its performance is measured and, in extreme cases, its systemic failure to protect rights — or its systematice violation of rights — can justify its alteration or abolition; (4) At least some of these rights are so fundamental that they are “inalienable,” meaning they are so intimately connected to one’s nature as a human being that they cannot be transferred to another even if one consents to do so. This is powerful stuff.
By 1776, the Atlantic Ocean had become what one historian has called “an information highway” across which poured books, magazines, newspapers and copies of the debates in Parliament. The latter were read by John Adams, George Washington, Robert Morris and other politically minded men. They concluded that the British were planning to tax the Americans into the kind of humiliation that Great Britain had inflicted on Ireland.
As eight years of war engulfed the continent, not a few of the rebels saw that the Revolution was a spiritual enterprise that would never really end. Dr. Benjamin Rush, a Pennsylvanian who signed the Declaration of Independence, wrote that the war was only the first step in the Revolution’s destiny to transform America and the world.
History confirmed his intuition. In the next hundred years, other nations and peoples would issue 200 similar declarations.
But then came the late 1960s, and over the next two decades American individualism was fully unleashed. A kind of tacit grand bargain was forged between the counterculture and the establishment, between the forever-young and the moneyed.
Going forward, the youthful masses of every age would be permitted as never before to indulge their self-expressive and hedonistic impulses. But capitalists in return would be unshackled as well, free to indulge their own animal spirits with fewer and fewer fetters in the forms of regulation, taxes or social opprobrium.
“Do your own thing” is not so different than “every man for himself.” If it feels good, do it, whether that means smoking weed and watching porn and never wearing a necktie, retiring at 50 with a six-figure public pension and refusing modest gun regulation, or moving your factories overseas and letting commercial banks become financial speculators. The self-absorbed “Me” Decade, having expanded during the ’80s and ’90s from personal life to encompass the political economy, will soon be the “Me” Half-Century.
People on the political right have blamed the late ’60s for what they loathe about contemporary life — anything-goes sexuality, cultural coarseness, multiculturalism. And people on the left buy into that, seeing only the ’60s legacies of freedom that they define as progress. But what the left and right respectively love and hate are mostly flip sides of the same libertarian coin minted around 1967. Thanks to the ’60s, we are all shamelessly selfish.
Little by little, the home of the brave and the land of the free has become a nation of rent-seeking dependents clamoring for their share of state largess. Even before the latest entitlement blowout called Obamacare, we crossed the line where more than half of Americans receive some kind of assistance from the government every month, paid for by the fewer than half that still pay income taxes. As we move into the future and the number of dependents grows while the taxpayer pool shrinks, we call the result social justice rather than its old name: theft.
Our forefathers shed blood rather than render unto King George. Yet today we madly mortgage our nation’s future to foreign powers, piling debt upon debt without limit or thought as to how it will be repaid. These debts ensnare our children and grandchildren even as we stop having them, confident in the knowledge that the government will take care of us in our old age, so why bother with the trouble and expense?
If we were still a nation capable of shame with enough intellectual integrity to call things as they are, if we hadn’t debauched our language as badly as our currency, if we had the courage to look in the mirror and see how woefully we have squandered our Founders’ legacy, this Fourth of July would be a day not of celebration but of atonement.